What To Do Instead Of Taking An Unpaid Internship—And How To Find Paid Opportunities

There are paid opportunities waiting.

I’ll never forget that time in grad school when I went in for an interview and was required to do a few hours of unpaid work to “prove my skills.” As I sat in the back office doing busywork, something felt off. I suddenly felt disposable—used, even. This kind of exploitation of labor was a trend at this particular company, as the internship itself was unpaid. In what was a blessing in disguise, I didn’t get the position.

Unpaid internships cater to the already privileged—those who have the financial support to work for free. And in an age of ever-rising tuition costs and rampant student loans, it’s rare that someone graduates from school without any debt. Even if it seems like a good resume builder, it’s not always a wise idea to take an unpaid internship. Working for free, not being able to pay off loans, and potentially racking up more debt can create a long-term financial setback.

When you’re a young, inexperienced worker, an unpaid internship may seem like a necessary stepping stone in building your career. But the truth is—it’s not.

When you’re a young, inexperienced worker, an unpaid internship may seem like a necessary stepping stone in building your career. But the truth is—it’s not. Whether you are graduating from college or are beginning a new career, there are plenty of ways to get your foot in the door. Here’s what you can do instead of taking an unpaid internship:

1. Spend Time Looking For A Paid Internship

Remember: paid internships absolutely do exist and are becoming more commonplace. Aim to only take internships that fairly compensate you. Finding a paid internship may require more time and dedication, but it’ll be well worth your effort. And there’s exciting news: with wages increasing, paid interns with bachelor’s degrees are making an average of $16 or more an hour (not bad!). Plus, as a paid intern, you may be assigned more meaningful work, instead of miscellaneous busy work, because your time is more valued. Chegg has a paid internship listing and this list provides other online resources. If you’re searching through popular job listing platforms like Indeed or Monster, make sure you filter for “paid” jobs or choose an appropriate salary range. If need be, use the “advanced search” feature to narrow down your search.



2. Do Paid Freelance Work And Gigs

If you can’t find a paid internship or full-time job right away, consider doing freelance work and gigs. I’ve been freelancing for the last five years as a writer, starting out with smaller local publications and working my way up to larger national ones. Freelance work is now available to those in most fields including writing and editing, IT, accounting, graphic design, social media, HR, photography, illustration, technical support, and more. As a freelancer, you can shop around and set your own rate for what you get paid—and choose to not take on a project if the compensation is unfair. Plus, you have the (sweet, sweet) freedom of creating your own schedule. Here is a list of online freelance platforms to check out! You can read about the pros and cons of each platform and choose ones that work well for you. Set up an account and get working—just make sure you set aside money to pay those freelance taxes.



3. Build Your Portfolio And Skillset On Your Own

When I first started pursuing journalism and writing, I created my own blog and began writing away. I used Wordpress but you can use a variety of platforms like Squarespace and Wix to create a website. I developed my portfolio while I worked a paid job in an unrelated field. I mostly wrote in my spare time, so there wasn’t a lot of pressure. If you have the time, it helps to develop your skills on your own and have examples of your work—whether that’s designing logos or taking photographs—to send to potential employers. With the freedom that comes with doing your own thing, you can also choose exactly how you approach your work and really let your personal style and methods shine. These projects can show a future employer that you are self-motivated and productive. As you do this, be on the lookout for full-time jobs in your field.

4. Network Your Way To A Paid Job

It’s important to keep in mind that a large majority of jobs are filled through networking. If you can demonstrate your work ethic and skills to people around you, they can confidently recommend you for jobs or connect you with paid opportunities. You can go to formal networking events or try to do some casual networking. Connect with others in your profession in your downtime. Find communities of like-minded people who you can learn from. And of course, in 2019, there’s an an app for everything. The app Shapr is like Tinder, except it’s for finding your dream job and connecting with others in your field. Ivy Social is another great resource. It brings together recent grads and professionals in an environment meant to foster friendships and professional contacts. Make networking a fun and positive experience—and make sure you spend time connecting with people in real life.

I’m not saying that no one should ever take an unpaid internship. It’s totally a case-by-case basis. If it’s only a few hours a week and can truly benefit your career, go ahead. Ensure you can make money through other means and do the internship on the side—just use your discretion. By spending extra time looking for paid opportunities, setting your own rules through freelance work, building your skills on your own terms, and connecting with others, you can progress your career in a way that’s fair and financially-savvy.


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Belinda Cai is a multimedia journalist who frequently writes about lifestyle, social and environmental justice, and identity and culture. She has a master’s in journalism and communications from the University of Southern California, and hails from Cincinnati, Ohio. When she’s not writing, she’s Wikipedia-spiraling, staying active, enjoying nature, and thrifting. Check out her website and Instagram.